The XX Factor

The Year Anti-Choicers Found Success by Arguing Abortion Is Too Dangerous to Allow Women Access

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis temporarily stalled draconian new abortion restrictions, but they eventually passed into law.

Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

As 2013 comes to a close, DoubleX is looking back on the year that was—the stories we covered and missed that captivated, puzzled, enraged, and delighted us. Review with us.

The anti-choice movement had two major reasons to see 2013 as a moment of reckoning. For one thing, the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January served as a reminder that, despite decades of obsessively chipping away at abortion access through the legislation and direct harassment of clinics, legal abortion remains largely available to most women. In addition, major Republican losses in the 2012 election were attributed to the tendency of anti-choice politicians to say searingly unsympathetic things about women, especially rape victims. This all is likely why, in 2013, anti-choicers shifted gears in their fight against abortion rights. While striking mawkish poses of concern for fetal life is still a popular rhetorical strategy on the right, in 2013, the main strategy for scraping away at women’s rights was to claim that it was being done for women’s own good. 

In state after state, but most notably Texas, anti-abortion legislators passed a series of laws designed to make legal abortion care seem incredibly dangerous for women (it’s actually very safe and much safer than continuing a pregnancy) and therefore requiring extensive regulations that just happen to be out of the reach of most clinics, forcing them to close down. One popular new regulation is requiring abortion clinics to meet ambulatory surgical standards that cost clinics millions of dollars to satisfy, even though vacuum aspiration abortions can be done in a regular doctor’s office and some clinics targeted only provide medication abortions. Another is forcing doctors to have hospital admitting privileges to perform abortions. Problem is that many abortion doctors can’t get them, in part because hospitals require you to have patients to admit to get the privileges, but abortion is so safe that doctors don’t have patients to admit. Many states are now trying to force a system of taking medication abortion that is actually more dangerous for patients, all while pretending that it’s being done for safety. 

The faux concern for women’s health, unfortunately, looks like an effective strategy so far. Since 2011, 73 abortion clinics have closed or stopped performing abortion, and roughly half of the closures are due to the new regulations. A big chunk of the clinics are in Texas, where a court battle to block the hospital admitting privileges regulation was lost, forcing at least a dozen clinics to stop performing abortion. Despite the official stance that this is being done to protect women’s health, it’s utterly obvious that the real effect is to imperil women. One doctor, Dr. Lester Minto, told Slate that women will now have to purchase a drug that induces miscarriage from (if they’re lucky) a Mexican pharmacy or, if they’re unable to cross the border, at flea markets or from other black market dealers. The best he can do is advise them on how to go about this and, if they have an incomplete miscarriage, finish the termination process for them. 

Pretty much no one actually thinks anti-choice activists care one way or another about protecting women, but pretending you care for legal purposes may very well be an effective political strategy. One of these abortion regulations is bound to come in front of the Supreme Court soon, with Justice Anthony Kennedy as the likely deciding vote. Unfortunately, Kennedy has shown in the past that he can be persuaded by paternalistic arguments about how women need to be denied abortion for their own good. After voting to uphold a ban on a specific late term abortion procedure in 2007, Kennedy condescendingly explained that he just doesn’t want women to regret their decision to not have that baby. That most women getting the procedure do so because the fetus has abnormalities incompatible with life didn’t hold any sway. He was too infatuated with his chance, as Dahlia Lithwick put it, to play “an all-knowing Baptista to a nation of fickle Biancas.” Because of this, American women may very soon be told by the Supreme Court that while we have a right to an abortion, for our own good, we will not be allowed to exercise it. Well, at least in red states.